At a time when Camden is in the news for all the wrong reasons, former Moorestonian Jennifer Barton is trying to change the beleaguered city’s image.
Everyone knows about Camden’s problems—its record-breaking number of murders this year (64 and counting), the controversy over the county takeover of its police force—but Barton wants to draw attention to the positives of the “City Invincible” with a privately funded campaign she launched this week, dubbed “Say Something Nice About Camden.”
“I just got tired of hearing all the negativity about Camden,” said Barton, who lived in the city’s Fairview section for six years in the '90s. “There’s a lot of organizations doing great work in the city.”
The campaign—which includes a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle (@SSNAC) and, perhaps the most visible component, a billboard along Route 30 near the Ben Franklin Bridge—is meant to “get people to stop and think and be positive,” she said.
As a member of the public relations team at L-3 Communications in New York City, where she presently resides, Barton knows a thing or two about marketing—though she stressed that “Say Something Nice About Camden” is strictly a personal endeavor.
“It just started with something that I wanted to say,” she explained.
Like any other South Jerseyan, Barton knew about Camden and was connected to it tangentially: her father attended Rutgers Law School, her mother worked at the Courier-Post and her family often visited the city and shopped at the Van Sciver furniture store.
It wasn’t until she began working in Camden—first as an intern on the city’s riverfront development project, then in other capacities—that she really began to know and love it. She worked on the Camden Children’s Garden, helped restore the stained glass of the Nipper Building and held her wedding reception on the riverfront.
Asked to say something nice about Camden herself, Barton at first lightheartedly mentioned the cheesesteaks at Little Slice of New York, then added, “More seriously, when you see the growth of institutions like Rutgers and Cooper Hospital, there’s a real infrastructure being built there. Truly, this is a recognition of the many positive things taking place there ... I’m an optimist.”
‘They need more than a billboard’
Though the naysayers are out there, Barton said the response to the campaign so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli said Barton’s message is “very much needed and appreciated.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a few bad apples who tarnish (the city’s) image,” he said. “There’s so many great things to say about Camden … The people in Camden City are caring people.”
The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, executive director of the nonprofit Hopeworks ‘N Camden, echoed Cappelli in his appraisal of the city’s population. But he worries that Barton’s campaign, while admirable, trivializes Camden’s deep-rooted problems.
“To simply say something nice about a city where 43 percent of people live below the poverty line is disingenuous,” he said.
“The people who do bad things in Camden are a very, very, very small segment of the population," Puthoff said, "but the people who suffer because of the bad things … because of the poverty, are many, and they need more than a billboard.”
Putthoff—a visiting priest at Our Lady of Counsel who inspired the church’s display of crosses representing each of Camden’s murder victims—said Barton is “on the right path,” but hopes “Say Something Nice About Camden” goes beyond mere words.
The key to reversing the city’s tarnished image, he said, is for people to get to know Camden’s inhabitants and reject the stereotypes.
“The majority of the people I work with are ordinary, everyday people...living, working, trying to raise a family,” he said. “They’re regular people.”
Barton acknowledged a billboard and a website alone won’t turn things around—“I don’t mean it to sound like a hippie’s dream,” she said—and mentioned that she’s reached out to the city’s movers and shakers—Rutgers, the mayor’s office, Putthoff—in an effort to begin establishing meaningful partnerships.
Thinking back to her Moorestown roots, it dawned on Barton recently that her project has “echoes of Quakerism.”
“The Quaker religion suggests that if you have a message, anyone can deliver it, and this is kind of my message,” she said. “It just started with something that I wanted to say, and I’m interested to see where it goes.”
Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged Camden youth, will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday at 543 State St., Camden. The organization is also raffling off an all-year pass to AMC theaters (good for two people). Learn more here.
Do you think the "Say Something Nice About Camden" campaign will change the way people think about the city? Tell us in the comments.